Nigeria should stay grounded, for now
Nigeria should have its own airline. Anyone who has seen the size and stature of t he Nigerian economy knows it. It did have a national carrier, Nigeria Airways, but it collapsed in 2003, mired in debt and brought low by corruption and mismanagement (on a pessimistic day, I’d tell you that you could pick a sector in Nigeria and you’d find a story similar to this).
In August, president Muhammadu Buhari ordered the ministry of aviation to begin work on the establishment of a new airline, expressing his concern at Nigeria’s lack of a national carrier. It is, in his view, an important step for national pride but also for job creation, which is suffering due to the sharp drop in crude oil prices, the main driver of the Nigerian economy.
The move has been welcomed by some quarters: it ’s true that the continent’s largest economy should boast an airline and that there are certainly passengers looking for an alternative to muchder i ded Arik Air, whose ser vices were severely compromised during Nigeria’s recent fuel crisis and where – in my recent experience – your plane is far more likely to be delayed than not. Nigeria wouldn’t have to do much to offer a service that was an improvement on some of my trips; even the word Arik prompts rolled eyes and sighs from disgruntled customers keen for better services.
For others, Buhari’s focus on an airline seems odd. Firstly, getting a profitable airline going seems like a difficult business in Nigeria – despite the disbursal of a 300bn (around R20bn) intervention fund, most of the country’s private airlines are heavily indebted to regulatory agencies under the aviation ministry.
Secondly, an airline is an expensive project at a time when Nigeria’s not f lush with cash, partly because of the oil price crash and partly because of large-scale misappropriation of funds under previous administrations. Say you’ve booked a plane ticket to f ly to Abuja from Lagos. You’ll wake up how many hours before to beat the traffic and negotiate the roads, the traffic and the area boys? You’ll walk past how many beggars on your way into the airport? You’ll queue for ages only to discover the plane isn’t running that day because of operational difficulties, which usually means insufficient jet fuel supply. You may eventually get on the plane only to f ind the landing delayed in Abuja because of private jet traff ic into the airport or because of repairs being done to the runway.
From this hypothetical trip alone, you can see that Nigeria’s priorities need for now to be far more fundamental than airlines. Fix inequality, f ix basic infrastructure, f ix the reliance of the economy on imported oil products when it produces its own crude oil. Find jobs fast for those who need them now, rather than building a project and then finding people to fit. Ensure that when you’ve built your airline, history won’t repeat itself; so that means fixing corruption.
An airline is a nice idea and will eventually and hopefully become a reality, but it’s an idea that should stay at the bottom of the to-do list until far more fundamental building blocks are in place.
AN AIRLINE IS A NICE IDEA AND WILL EVENTUALLY AND HOPEFULLY BECOME A REALITY, BUT IT’S AN IDEA THAT SHOULD STAY AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TO-DO LIST.